Paul Klee: Making Visible

Alex Danchev delights in Tate Modern’s finely chosen feast of delicacies from the table of Paul Klee

October 17, 2013

Paul Klee: Making Visible
Tate Modern, London
Until 9 March 2014

Paul Klee: Making Visible
Edited by Matthew Gale
Tate Publishing, £35.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9781849760058 and 60355

Tate Modern’s exhilarating exhibition of Paul Klee (1879-1940) takes as its text a dictum from his Creative Confession (1920), “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes visible.”

The Bauhaus Buddha, as one of his contemporaries called him, made visible his vision; for he was a kind of visionary, as Klee himself made clear. “I do not wish to represent man as he is,” he said, “but only as he might be.” Man found a new place in Klee’s cosmos. Heaven and earth were redrawn; angels and devils conjured afresh; all creatures reimagined. The poet René Crevel recalled his “soulful animals, intelligent birds, heart-fish, dream-plants”. The painter Jankel Adler put it well in an obituary notice: “Klee had the courage to walk this clean-swept platform of the twentieth century and not to continue in the shade of Renaissance standards. He did not try to make a new shadow. He made a survey of this place for others who will come.”

Klee’s imagination took flight, in so many ways, yet he was at the same time intensely grounded. The writer Carl Einstein, his contemporary, who understood artists as if from the inside, remarked wisely on “the confluence of the remembered image and the hallucination” in Klee’s work. The process of reconstruction was a crucial part of his modus operandi.

Man found a new place in Klee’s cosmos. Heaven and earth were redrawn; angels and devils conjured afresh; all creatures reimagined

The order of things was important to him. In 1911 he inaugurated his “oeuvre catalogue” of finished works, a comprehensive listing, almost a compulsion, maintained over 30 years. Every year, each work was allocated a number, in chronological order, entered in a book, and so designated on the painting or drawing itself. Thus the famous Angelus Novus (not in the exhibition but illustrated in the catalogue), Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”, is designated 1920, 32, indicating the 32nd work he made that year, or at any rate the 32nd to attain the dignity of the oeuvre catalogue.

In principle, therefore, it is possible to gauge at a glance his productivity in any given year – Klee himself was “attentive to the annual total”, as Matthew Gale rather delicately puts it in the catalogue – and, perhaps more interestingly, to get an idea of what he was working on at any given time. Early in 1920, for example, not long before the Angelus Novus, the catalogue includes Aerial Combat (1920, 2) and Memorial to the Kaiser (1920, 3) – which would appear to lend credence to the suggestion that the angel is in some way enmeshed in the Great War. But there is also They’re Biting (1920, 6), a marvellous little fable of some philosophical fish, falling hook, line and sinker for two gormless anglers – which may or may not, depending on the nature of the fable (an allegory, perhaps?).

Plainly Klee worked on more than one thing at a time. Moreover, he was extremely reluctant to alter the number of a work in the oeuvre catalogue, once allocated, even if he later reworked it, as he often did. The sequencing may be misleading (or downright perplexing: what looks like a preparatory drawing of the Angelus Novus bears a later number than the angel of history itself). It transpires that Klee was at once scrupulous and not so scrupulous about ordering and reordering, shaping and reshaping, fashioning and refashioning, especially when it came to self-fashioning, or self-presentation.

From the age of 18 until he was 29 he also kept a diary, which is not so much a diary as conventionally understood but more an essay in autobiography (or mythography), serially revised, with an eye to posterity. Klee’s diaries are important documents – they contain major statements – but they are an essentially literary product, as heavily reworked as any item in the oeuvre catalogue. “Colour and I are one” is a magnificent credo, but not quite the revelation it purports to be. Klee’s texts are authentic reconstructions, handwritten yet hard-won. Withal, they speak truly of the art and the artist. “I cannot be grasped in the here and now. For I reside just as much with the dead as with the unborn. Somewhat closer to the heart of creation than usual. But not nearly close enough.”

Klee was an immensely professional professional artist. When he was appointed as a master at the Bauhaus, in 1920, he had never done any teaching. Aided and abetted by his favourite cat, Fritzi (aka Fripouille), he set about preparing for his new role with characteristic thoroughness. His colleague Georg Muche later recalled his first lesson: “He backed through the door into the room. Turning around without looking at his audience, he went straight up to the blackboard and began lecturing and drawing. He illustrated what he was saying and in conclusion drew two arcs with chalk. The arcs intersected at one end and just touched at the other…‘And this is the fish of Columbus!’ Paul Klee said. He closed his notebook and left the room.”

Backing into the limelight, Klee became one of the most celebrated of the painters and pedagogues in that crucible of Modernism. The Bauhaus was a total institution. After it moved from Weimar to Dessau, in 1925, the masters lived in houses designed by the director, Walter Gropius. Klee shared one with Wassily Kandinsky – a daunting pairing. The demands made on masters and students alike were considerable. Klee acted as artistic adviser in the bookbinding and stained-glass workshops; he offered basic instruction; he gave courses on textile composition and the theory of form, and classes in painting and drawing. When he accepted a professorship at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1931, in the hope of securing more time for his own work, Kandinsky himself paid a handsome tribute to his departing friend: “Such links cannot be severed painlessly…At the Bauhaus, Klee exuded a healthy, generative atmosphere – as a great artist and a lucid human being. The Bauhaus appreciates his worth.”

He knew his onions – and his fish. The fish of Columbus was a harbinger of shoals to come. The Tate curators remark on “his preoccupation with the three-dimensional movement of fish observed in his aquarium”, citing Fish Magic (1925, 85), one of their prize exhibits. Klee is to fish as Georges Braque is to birds. The real fascination lay with the movement of the projectile in space. Braque spoke of the materialisation of space in the painting. In other words, space is what art makes visible. In the “magic squares” of Klee’s Architecture (1923, 62), space sings.

Klee’s fish have the lightness of thoughtfulness, in Italo Calvino’s formulation, as well as the lightness of frivolity. The same is true of all his creatures – Portrait of an Equilibrist (19, 13) is almost guaranteed to provoke a quizzical smile – and of his entire cosmology. The Tate show is a finely chosen feast of delicacies, small paintings sparsely hung, to great effect, and sympathetically matched for luminosity, as it sometimes seems, as well as style and form. It tells of the master sorcerer of our time. “Klee gives the impression of being quite small and playful in everything,” wrote Hugo Ball in 1917. “In an age of the colossus he falls in love with a green leaf, a star, a butterfly’s wing, and since the heavens and all infinity are reflected in them, he paints those in too…What irony and even sarcasm this artist must feel towards our hollow, empty epoch.”

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